Saturday, 3 September 2016

Workers' Knowledge as Workers' Power

Dear Colleagues,

As you'll know I have been toiling on my doctoral thesis, the focus of which is the MA programme I run at Ruskin and its focus on the way in which trade unionists learn. Although I felt I had a handle on this, the research and reading process has been fascinating in extending my awareness and appreciation of this process.

As I have posted already, I was utterly unaware of the theory of embodied learning ( and its symbiotic relationship in imbibing and accruing knowledge through the physical and emotional processes of activism.

There is though much more on the different ways in which activists develop and produce knowledge, research and theory in social movements than there is in labour movements - see the earlier posts on the work of Aziz Choudry for example. So, I look forward to getting the thesis complete (all being well by the end of the year) and starting to use the findings to write/research further and disseminate/discuss.

Picketing for Worker's Rights at Zara in New York
Scanning the labour movement news on coming back from leave I was blown away by the fantastic organising result in the US of retail workers at the Spanish fashion retail outlet Zara:


What struck me as particularly interesting in this story - aside from the fact that unionisation and recognition has occurred in one of the most exploited employment sectors - is that workers' knowledge was central to the success of the story.

The creation of the new union (Retail Workers (RWDSU) Local 1102) arose in part through close collaboration with a number of community-based organisations, but also the New York City worker center, the Retail Action Project (RAP) ( Here, the RAP provides training on some of the core skills required for the job (and necessary for promotion, getting work etc.) that is often not supplied in the cut-throat retail sector.

Allied to this also is the education required to facilitate organising/mobilising. What I found particularly interesting is that the success of unionisation rested on a relationship between the skills/knowledge required for the job and that for building a union from the ground up.

The relationship between skill and unionisation is in fact the story of the emergence of organised labour historically, As the Zara story reveals though - particularly at a global level - is that the relentless drive towards de-skilling and precarity has been a successful means to undermine organised labour across a wide variety of sectors. Books like Ralph's Darlington's The Dynamics of Workplace Unionism are a great insight on how trade unions have attempted to resist this process through the concentration of workforce skill/knowledge:

I have spent some time in writing my thesis examining a similar experience in the UK around the learning/skills agenda precipitated by the lifelong learning agenda of the Blair/Brown governments. I have personally been involved in many projects funded with money from the Union Learning Fund (ULF) that have resulted in profound change in workers' lives and positively impacted on the strength of union organisation and ultimately benefitted the employer in a variety of ways.

My thesis supervisor, Cilla Ross, and other colleagues at the Working Lives Research Institute (WLRI) co-wrote a publication which provide a fascinating on outcomes from skills/learning activity:

Whilst I am questioning in my thesis the tangible impact on trade union renewal in the UK from trade union activity around the learning/skills agenda, it is clear that unions can make a difference to workers' lives when they concentrate on the skills/knowledge that workers need for the job.

Taking a quote from one of the article linked above:

Janna Pea, deputy communications director for the union, hopes competitors take note of the message Zara is sending: “There is a way that you can operate a company, remain profitable, and recognize workers' rights to respect on the job.”

Please read the two article and leave a comment here on your thoughts.

In Solidarity


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